Members Only | October 3, 2018 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
The GOP Mob’s Descent into Sadism
The president thinks #MeToo is on trial in November. He's wrong.
President Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford last night during a rally. In doing so, he made fun of all women who have experienced the trauma of sexual assault. He also wrote a new chapter in the story of his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. In openly disdaining Ford, and invoking supporters to laugh at her pain, the president tried turning the midterms into a referendum on #MeToo.
He’s wrong. November’s midterms, indeed all midterms, are a referendum of the party in control of the White House. This is the case. This has always been the case. I can think of one exception. That was 2002 when the Republicans held the Congress while a GOP president prosecuted a response to Sept. 11. Other than that, midterms have historically been the result of an electorate restoring the balance of power.
Even so, some liberals (including me) might welcome the president’s dare. After all, the #MeToo movement has brought down men who had not previously been held accountable for their crimes. Trump himself has been accused many times over of sexual assault. (At one point, even his former wife accused him of rape.)
But liberals embracing this fight should do so with open eyes. Remember that during the 2016 election, many of us could not fathom that a categorical fraud like Donald Trump would win the presidency. But just enough people in just enough states were willing to overlook his conspicuous flaws to prevent a woman from taking power.
Granted, a congressional election is not a presidential election. Most indicators point strongly to Democratic gains in the House. But we should understand the possible trade offs. In fighting this fight, we could lose. As feminist scholars will tell you, the interests of patriarchy find ways of lashing back. And Trump isn’t alone.
The premise of the Republican argument in favor of Kavanaugh is that his feelings are more important than Ford’s, that her experience, if true, is not all that big a deal, and that the Democrats must be punished for perpetrating such a heinous smear on such a fine upstanding man. This message will resonate with many voters, even those who had been thinking about voting Democratic before Ford came along.
That said, the temptation might be to dial down the gender rhetoric, to back away from conflict over Kavanaugh and #MeToo. Democrats should do no such thing.
Politics and morality are often the same thing. They are often separate things. But they should not be confused for each other. Teddy White once said the only cures for bigotry are education and death. The Democrats can be proud of being the minority party educating the republic while waiting for the old guard to die off.
At the same time, the Democrats should name what is going on. Yes, it’s patriarchy. Yes, it’s affirmation of the so-called natural order. But I don’t think that idiom is helpful in moving public opinion. What happened last night should be seen in a context of what conservatism has become over the last decade.
It is no longer about slowing down progress, about preserving “tradition” or about maintaining “social cohesion.” It’s not about grievance anymore, though that term is now used widely. It’s not even about demeaning or harming others.
It’s about taking pleasure in other’s pain. Conservatism has become sadism.
Think about it. When asked to recall her strongest memory, Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee this: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“They were laughing with each other. I was underneath one of them while the two laughed—two friends having a really good time with one another.”
Fast forward to last night’s rally. Impersonating Ford, Trump said:
“‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ‘Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it?’ ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember,’” Trump said of Ford. “I don’t remember,” he said repeatedly, mocking her trauma.
And the people laughed and laughed:
The upside to conservatism’s devolution might not be clear, but there is an upside, because it is polarizing. It tells some conservative white men, people who otherwise do not have a good reason to be fearful, to be scared out of their minds.
While most of these men (I suspect) are familiar with Trump’s rhetoric of cruelty, no sane and honest man, however conservative, would want that talk to rise to the highest levels of power. While women have always had some reason to be fearful, men haven’t. But now men are seeing what happens when mobs descend into sadism.
Making an ‘ass’ of ‘you and me’
All of us are assuming Brett Kavanaugh will affect the midterms in some way, but there’s some reason to question that assumption. Nate Silver says it’s unclear right now how his nomination is influencing polling. Jonathan Bernstein reminded us last week that voters are notoriously short-sighted and forgetful. He wrote:
Even if some of the more marginal party voters are more likely to vote (or not) because of the news, it’s also the case that there’s still plenty of time between now and Election Day. After all, just a few weeks ago the news was dominated by the conviction of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, followed by the death and funeral of John McCain. Those were pretty big events, and they probably did push opinion polls a bit. But while they’re not exactly forgotten, they’re no longer in the headlines. Any current effect on turnout or vote choice is likely minimal.
Kavanaugh’s conservative opposition
I don’t think liberals are paying enough attention to the subplot of the Brett Kavanaugh story. While we are chanting “believe the women” and watching Jeff Flake’s every facial expression, conservative intellectuals are moving against his nomination for other reasons: he doesn’t have the right temperament, and that character flaw will compromise the court’s integrity.
Charlie Sykes wrote in The Weekly Standard:
The problem was not that Judge Kavanaugh was angry; it was the way he chose to vent his anger. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing anger, even in the Age of Trump. Prudence and restraint are good ideas for all of us in our daily life, but are essential qualities for a jurist. It is one thing for Lindsey Graham to audition for the role of the Senate’s angry Uriah Heep. It is quite another for a Supreme Court nominee to go Full Trump.
At this point, Kavanaugh is more likely than not to be confirmed along partisan lines for a job in which he could serve for another 40 years. Because of his outburst last week, his confirmation will be a short term win for the Right, but at the cost of casting a long shadow over any conservative jurisprudence that emanates from his pen.
Benjamin Wittes, in The Atlantic, echoed Sykes.
if I were a senator, I would vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. I would do it both because of Ford’s testimony and because of Kavanaugh’s. For reasons I will describe, I find her account more believable than his. I would also do it because whatever the truth of what happened in the summer of 1982, Thursday’s hearing left Kavanaugh nonviable as a justice. (My italics.)
So did Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post:
for the undecided, anguished few, the choice is—or should be—getting harder, not easier. Kavanaugh’s credibility and integrity are now fairly at issue. The nominee himself put them there and in doing so made his situation far more precarious than it needed to be.
Speaking of sadism
On Sept. 18, the Times reported:
The Trump administration is unable to account for the whereabouts of nearly 1,500 migrant children who illegally entered the United States alone this year and were placed with sponsors after leaving federal shelters, according to congressional findings released on Tuesday.
The revelation echoes an admission in April by the Department of Health and Human Services that the government had similarly lost track of an additional 1,475 migrant children it had moved out of shelters last year.
In findings that lawmakers described as troubling, Senate investigators said the department could not determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,488 out of 11,254 children the agency had placed with sponsors in 2018, based on follow-up calls from April 1 to June 30.
The inability to track the whereabouts of migrant children after they have been released to sponsors has raised concerns that they could end up with human traffickers or be used as laborers by people posing as relatives.
On Sept. 30, the Times reported:
In shelters from Kansas to New York, hundreds of migrant children have been roused in the middle of the night in recent weeks and loaded onto buses with backpacks and snacks for a cross-country journey to their new home: a barren tent city on a sprawling patch of desert in West Texas.
Until now, most undocumented children being held by federal immigration authorities had been housed in private foster homes or shelters, sleeping two or three to a room. They received formal schooling and regular visits with legal representatives assigned to their immigration cases.
But in the rows of sand-colored tents in Tornillo, Tex., children in groups of 20, separated by gender, sleep lined up in bunks. There is no school: The children are given workbooks that they have no obligation to complete. Access to legal services is limited.
These midnight voyages are playing out across the country, as the federal government struggles to find room for more than 13,000 detained migrant children—the largest population ever—whose numbers have increased more than fivefold since last year.
A note to readers
The Editorial Board goes out to subscribers only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you think someone would like the Editorial Board, please forward this email message to them. To get daily insight sent directly to their inbox, all they’ve got to do is subscribe. $5 a month or $55 a year! It’s so easy. Today: Get a month free!
Many thanks for supporting the Editorial Board! —John Stoehr
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.